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Thứ Tư, 8 tháng 4, 2015

No sap for you: After one last season, couple call a stop to annual syrup ... - New Castle News

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When Ed and Annette Grzandziel look out the windows of their Harlansburg Road home, they see acres of sap machines.


For the last eight years, the couple has turned their property at the corner of Grange Hall Road into a small maple syrup factory, aptly named “The Sugar Shack” as a way to keep busy during their retirement years.


While they’ve never marketed the sweet amber to dark brown liquid, they’ve become a popular stop for curious neighbors and travelers who spy the billowing clouds of steam rising from the modest white shack in their backyard and who want to take home a pint of the sweet topping.


And though the Grzandziels have a lot of fun tapping 150 maple trees each spring and entertaining guests to their property, they are ready to hang up their metal buckets for good.


A HARD WINTER


Typically the couple begins tapping the trees around Valentine’s Day, said Ed, an Allegheny County native, which is when the weather begins fluctuating enough so that the sap in the trees starts moving, he said. Ideally, he likes to begin tapping when the temperature reaches the 40s in the day and is no colder than the 20s at night.


“Basically, the sap is moving up and down in the trees and we’re able to catch it in between,” he said.


But this year, like many maple syrup producers across the Eastern U.S., colder-than-normal temperatures and heavy snowfall made it difficult for the 70-year-old Ed and the 71-year-old Annette to tend to the trees on their five acres.


“It’s just too much for two of us. She’s had her knees replaced and we both have arthritis,” Ed said recently, while boiling down a batch of sap in his shiny silver evaporator. “And this year, there was a foot of snow on the ground when we tapped the trees.”


Annette, who grew up in Butler County, said the deep snow and the tangled vines and branches through the woods made it especially hard to navigate around the towering maples.


Ed said the hard work isn’t just in the spring, either. He cuts wood year-round and stacks it in the sugar shack, as his evaporator is fueled by hand-fed firewood. He said this year he put up 2 1/2 cords.


Plus, he said, they must meticulously clean the galvanized buckets and spiels — the tool used to allow the sap to flow from the tree — when they’re done making the syrup.


“Everyone tells us we can’t shut down,” Ed said, adding with a laugh, “but boy, our bodies are getting tired,”


A RECIPE FOR FUN


When Ed retired from the airline industry in 2007, the couple bought their Lawrence County house as a central location between family in neighboring counties. Annette had retired, too, from her job as a nurse, and so they started to look for ways to stay busy.


“I started this as a hobby,” Ed said. “I thought I’d be bored at this time of year. I knew we had a lot of maple trees, and when a guy showed me how he tapped the trees in his backyard, it fascinated me.”


So he started researching how to make maple syrup.


“I went up to Tioga County to Patterson Maple Farms, which is the largest maple syrup producer in the state to learn about it,” he said, while feeding wood to the fire roaring beneath the evaporator in his shack. “And I read five books.”


“That’s more books than you’ve ever read in your life,” joked Annette, who leaned up against the work counter, where a couple jars of their syrup were proudly displayed.


Ignoring his wife’s teasing, Ed continued: “It was just a wonder to me how you go from clear sap to syrup.”


After converting an old tool shed on their property into a sugar shack, complete with an evaporator to boil the sap down, a work counter, and two lawn chairs nestled on either side of a propane heater, the couple began making syrup.


But it wasn’t too long before people got curious about the billowing “smoke” coming out of the shack.


They’ve gotten used to phone calls from random strangers, who, after seeing the couple’s name listed on the Western Pennsylvania Maple Syrup Producers’ website, inquired about purchasing the sweet treat.


“We’ve had Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts come out for demonstrations,” Annette said. “People have even come from the other side of the tubes on the south side of Pittsburgh.”


Perhaps one of the more memorable visitors was their mail carrier, who, upon delivering the couple’s mail, banged on the door to notify them that their shed was on fire, Annette recalled.


“We don’t advertise and we don’t really sell it,” Annette said, “But people find us.”


SUGAR SHACK STEPS


The couple said their “old-fashioned” operation makes somewhere between 15 and 18 gallons of syrup every year during the season.


But in order to make even that amount, they must collect 750 and 900 gallons of sap, as 50 gallons of sap produces one gallon of syrup. The couple cooks down about 160 gallons of sap at a time, they said; a process that takes about 11 to 12 hours.


“The sap outside doesn’t really taste sweet,” Ed said. “You just cook and cook it down till you get syrup.


“All we’re basically doing is taking the water out of the sap,” he continued, motioning to the clouds filling the shack like a steamy bathroom.


Using a drill, they first put holes in the trees so they can install the spiels, off of which the galvanized buckets and their covers hang. Each year, they drill in a different spot on the tree, they said.


“It doesn’t hurt the trees,” Ed said. “I just think of it as the trees giving us a pint of their blood.”


Ed said each tree produces varying amounts of sap.


“I have two trees, side by side, and one is just pouring out and the other is slow and poky,” Annette explained. “There’s nothing you can do to control it.”


After the couple taps the trees, they empty the sap-filled buckets into a 50-gallon storage tank on the back of their tractor, and then transfer it to a 210-gallon tank in a loft above the sugar shack. Tubes connected to the larger tank are gravity-fed down into the evaporator.


They can regulate the amount of sap being fed into the evaporator, which boils the sap, removing the water in it. Ed says he must continually watch the sap carefully, so it doesn’t foam up, as well as the fire, so it remains at a constant temperature.


As the sap reduces and fills the finishing tank. Then they open the tap and empty it a large pan with a wool filter. That bucket of syrup is transferred to a propane stove, where it is cooked one last time. Ed said most syrup makers finish at this step, but he and Annette filter the syrup one last time.


“Then we store it in pints and quarts, in Mason jars that I do inside,” Annette said.


CLOSING UP SHOP


The season lasts for around six weeks, or until the buds start appearing on the maple trees, Annette said. The buds make the sap turn, so that when it’s cooked into syrup, it becomes bitter, she said.


“This season was not as long this year,” Annette said.


The hard winter also seemed to effect the color of the sap, Ed said, as this year’s first run was much darker than usual. But, he asserted, the flavor is as good as ever.


Annette says that in the time they’ve been making it, she’s collected a number of recipes that use syrup.


“It’s good on ice cream or on apple pie and dumplings,” she said. “And I’ve got this wonderful glaze recipe for chicken and pork chops, and then he injects maple syrup into the ham.”


Ed said since they’ve been using pure maple syrup for this many years, it’s difficult to stomach the artificial kind bought in stores.


“Once you start using this, there’s no way you want to go back to Log Cabin or Aunt Jemima,” he said. “Everyone tells me that we’ve got the best syrup, but this year we’ve got to hoard it, ’cause this will be it.”


(Email: jshelenberger@ncnewsonline.com)







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